Civil War Profiles — The Northwestern secession conspiracy

Stories out of California these days describe a secession movement under way in response to the outcome of the recent presidential election. One group would like to “peaceably, legally transform the West Coast of the United States into a ‘pragmatic progressive’ paradise.” (

Such an undertaking is not unprecedented. In the midst of the Civil War, after 11 Southern states seceded from the Union, another section of the country contemplated establishing a separate nation. To be known as the Northwestern Confederacy, that movement included Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois and Iowa (generally known today as Midwestern states).

A look below the surface of that case, however, finds a conspiratorial effort that Southern Confederates initiated to undermine federal plans to reunite the wayward states under one flag. The chicken-or-the-egg concept applies here, since a large segment of the population in these Northwestern states already had pro-South sentiments.

A New York Times article dated July 29, 1864, identifies the “Order of American Knights” as the organization engaged in the conspiracy. Its purpose “to embarrass [meaning “undermine”] the [Federal] Government in the conduct of the war, and to overthrow the Government, if necessary.”

The article specifies the “Order is of Southern origin, being erected on the ruins of the Knights of the Golden Circle” that had floundered, yet in later years would enlist the original Ku Klux Klan as its military arm (

Southern Confederate Maj. Gen. Sterling Price is identified as the Order’s supreme commander, while Ohio Congressman Clement Vallandigham, a Democrat, exiled from the U.S. for subversive activities, received appointment while in Richmond as supreme commander of the Order’s Northern section — the objective being “to divide the East and West.”

To accomplish this assignment, Vallandigham traveled to Canada to join the Southern Confederacy’s clandestine mission operating from there. He established Order of American Knights’ Lodges throughout the Northern states, and arranged a meeting with influential anti-federal government figures from a number of states, including Pennsylvania, Ohio, Missouri and Illinois. (For more on Vallandigham, whose brother and his family lived in Delaware, see the Coastal Point’s Jan. 20, 2012 issue.)

The Times explains further that Vallandigham called on members of the Lodges to renew their vows, because “the time is fast approaching which will test their sincerity.” That time was to be March 10, 1864, the “day fixed for the [military] draft [in the North] to take place…” when it was anticipated that there would be resistance to serving in the military.

Stephen E. Towne described the growing insurrection in these states in “Surveillance & Spies in the Civil War: Exposing Confederate Conspiracies in America’s Heartland.” Lack of appreciation at the federal level in Washington of the seriousness of the conspiracy in the Northwest states — particularly from General-in-chief Henry W. Halleck and Secretary of War Edward M. Stanton — left the loyal governors of those states basically on their own to deal with the problem.

Republican governors, such as Oliver P. Morton in Indiana, Richard Yates of Illinois and William Dennison Jr. in Ohio, organized intelligence operations to ferret out subversives in their states labeled “Demo-secessionists.” It was the peace wing or “Copperheads” of the Democratic Party leading the revolt.

President Abraham Lincoln believed he had to balance his response to these conspiracies against the U.S. government, and those who fought against it. He realized that an overreaction could tip the balance in favor of the schemers.

The masterful work of intelligence operatives who infiltrated these organizations helped the states impede efforts to interfere with the draft, elections and other activities designed to enhance the Union war effort.

What will occur regarding California’s call for secession has yet to be determined. Contemporary unrest over undesirable results of the democratic process, however, raises the question what will guide the outcome.

Will it be “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another...” (Declaration of Independence), or “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union … Congress shall have Power To … suppress Insurrections…” (Constitution of the United States)?

Tom Ryan is the author of the multiple award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign.” Signed copies are available at Bethany Beach Books and Browseabout Books in Rehoboth. Contact him at, or visit his website at